Malthus again

From: Henry George versus Henry George


On pages 206, 211, 220, Mr. George virtually concedes all that is claimed for the Malthusian doctrine of “pressure of population.” If increase of population increases rent, and so decreases wages, it is quite immaterial whether the evils that troop with low wages come directly from “pressure against subsistence,” or from boosting up production, provided that it wrest it from the mouth of the laborer and put it into the lap of the landlord. Whether the pressure be direct or indirect, the effect is all the same upon the starving laborer. So long as the evil comes from increase of population, the interposition of a few high-sounding words in the formulation of the theory, or of another link in the chain of causation, makes little or no difference in the essential fact.

There is also a fallacy in Mr. George’s argument to show that increase of population increases productive power faster than the population. The labor of one hundred men, he says, will produce more than one hundred times one man. ( P. 208.)

True, but the necessities (wants) of one hundred men are more than the wants of one hundred times one man. And the question is, whether relative to these—the wants—productive power keeps pace with the normal increase of population. Here again we cite Mr. George against himself:

“Now, in a state of society in which the existing power of labor seemed to satisfy all material desires, and there was no possibility of new desires being called forth by the opportunity of gratifying them, the effect of labor-saving improvements would be simply to reduce the amount of labor expended. But such a state of society, if it can anywhere be found (which I do not believe) exists only where the human most nearly approaches the animal. In the state f society called civilized, and which in this inquiry we are concerned with, the very reverse is the case. Demand is not a fixed quantity, that increases only as population increases. In each individual it rises with his power of getting the things demanded. Man is not an ox, who, when he has eaten his fill, lies down to chew the cud; he is the daughter [sic] of the horse-leach, who constantly asks for more. … The amount of wealth produced is nowhere commensurate with the desire for wealth, and desire mounts with [sometimes in advance of] every additional opportunity for gratification” (Pp. 220, 221.)[1]

It is unfortunate for Mr. George, that, to the success of one argument, he is often compelled to knock down what he has set up in support of another.

Beginning on page 212, and running to page 217, Mr. George, with a graphic pen, draws a vivid, truthful and beautiful picture of the growth of a town from a single squatter, up to a St Louis, Chicago, or San Francisco, filled with all the appliances of art, industry, science, philosophy, of social and religious life—in short, all the varied products and blessings of the highest known civilization.

One comment on this is, that “rent” did not put them there: Wages did not put them there. What then did, if not capital? All these things stand for the products of labor, that went neither to rent nor wages. If all the produce of labor is, on just principles, the wages of labor, then it may do to call these things, (if they must needs be christened,) “stored-up wages,” but not “stored-up labor.” And it may be a robbery of labor, a perversion of wages, to store them up in this way, but without that perversion where would these things be? If they be not desirable, they are to be deprecated, and ought to be abolished; and such evils as inhere in them would be abolished with them. If they be desirable, the inherent evils must be endured—the incidental, not consequent, evils must be eliminated and banished by themselves. That is the problem. Mr. George’s task is to show that the solution lies in the abolition of private ownership in land. In the end we shall see. Our object here has been to draw, from the finest passages in Mr. George’s book, an illustration of the “functions of capital,” in which, perhaps, even the plundered laborer can find some comfort.

In speaking of the “increased productiveness which increased population gives to land,” as Mr. George does on page 218, it seems like confounding the productiveness of land with that of capital. The produce of land, consists of its agricultural and mineral returns to labor. If it have any value supplementary to this, that value is conferred by capital, and inheres in the buildings, machinery, etc., resting on it, and without which the land would continually decrease rather than increase in value. Without these, its value would be determined by the price of grain and garden-sauce, of which it would yield less and less each succeeding year, but for the restorative efficacy of capital. This, however, is not Mr. George’s view. He says (p. 217) that

—”they [tire buildings, machinery, etc.] are not worth as much as the land upon which they rest—the same land, in nothing changed, which when our first settler came upon it had no value at all.”

If it had no value then, it is not easy to see what “worth” it can have now, apart from that which has been or may be added to it by the hand of man. And the hand that put the value there has a lawful hold upon it. It is his property, on Mr. George’s own theory. An acre of land, as land, in the heart of New York, London or San Francisco, is worth no more than a potato-patch of equal area, at convenient distance anywhere else.

For “increase of population,” as used on this page, (p. 218,) substitute “demand,” and you get nearer the truth. There might be increase of population, ad infinitum in the nut-eating, root-digging state of human existence, but for the increase of wants, and “demand,” without adding a farthing to the value of land. ( See pp. 20, 21, 22.)

“It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space. If the bread and beef above decks seem to grow scarce, we but open a hatch and there is a new supply, of which before we never dreamed. And very great command over the services of others comes to those who, as the hatches are opened are permitted, to say, ‘This is mine!'” (P. 218.)

And Mr. George seems to forget that “This is mine” is precisely the “command” that Capital always gives, and that, without it, his “well-provisioned ship” would be an empty, waterlogged hulk, without mast, rudder, chart or compass.

On page 220 is this passage:

“If it can now be shown that, irrespective of the increase of population, the effect of improvements in methods of production and exchange is to increase rent, the disproof of the Malthusian theory—and of all the doctrines derived from or related to it—will be final and complete, for we shall have accounted for the tendency of material progress to lower wages and depress the condition of the lowest class, without recourse to the theory of increasing pressure against the means of subsistence.”

The force of this as an argument against Malthus will astonish the reader when he recalls to mind what we have elsewhere shown, that “increase of population” (laborers) and “increase of labor-saving machines”—”improvements in methods of productions”—are exact equivalents in their relation to wages. As to the effect upon the rate of wages, a hundred-handed machine is equal to fifty workingmen. So that Mr. George has undertaken the stupendous task of proving that identical propositions mean the same thing. Granting him all the success he has a right to expect, he will still have to show how it refutes the Malthusian doctrine, that “increase of laborers tends to lower wages.”[2]

But, waiving all this, the argument is still more remarkable for its method. He tells us, that if he can show that something besides increase of population tends to lessen the wages of the laborer, then increase of population does not tend to lessen wages. Having found a cause adequate to a given effect, it excludes all other causes. Let it once be shown that irrespective of strychnine or arsenic, men have been killed by prussic acid, and the proof “will be final and complete” that men cannot be killed by strychnine or arsenic. Let it once be shown that a protective tariff tends to “depress the condition of the lowest class” and as we have thus accounted for the depression of the lowest class “without recourse to the theory” of rent, all Mr. George’s work is in vain, for without his theory of rent his book is as nothing. That is Mr. George’s logic. How would he like to have the chalice commended to his own lips?

Following up this same ignis fatuus, Mr. George says, on page 251:

“It is important that this [namely, that “the ultimate effect of labor-saving machinery or improvements is to increase rent without increasing wages or interest”] be fully understood, for it shows that the effects attributed by current theories to increase of population are really due to the progress of invention, and explains the otherwise perplexing fact, that labor-saving machinery everywhere fails to benefit laborers.”

Now, reconstructing this passage in the light of what has just been indicated, namely, that political economists use the word “population” as denoting laborers, as well as consumers, and that to increase their number tends to diminish their wages; and that “progress of invention—the introduction of “labor-saving machines”—that the machine which does the work of one hundred men, is virtually “increase of population” to that extent, as bearing upon wages—reconstructing, we say, the above passage in the light of these truths, we have the following edifying result:

“It is important that this be fully understood, for it shows that the effects attributed by current theories to increase of population are really due to increase of population, and explains the otherwise perplexing fact, that laborsaving machinery [= increase of population] everywhere fails to benefit laborers”—i.e. to raise their wages. (See page 126 for further confirmation.)

It is a law in Political Economy, according to Mr. George, that “labor-saving machines” tend to lower wages; yet it is a “perplexing fact,” to Mr. George, that they do not raise them! It is a law (of gravitation) that all bodies tend to fall to the earth, yet it is a perplexing fact, to men of Mr. George’s mode of reasoning, that they do not rise from the earth.

We take it for granted that, by “failing to benefit laborers,” he means failing to increase their wages, for, that he does not deny, that all the members of a community are, on the average, the better off for machinery, is obvious from the whole tenor of his matter on pages 213-215.

Mr. George even imagines a state of perfection in “labor-saving inventions,” that might do away “entirely” with “the necessity of labor in the production of wealth,” annihilating wages and interest altogether; (p. 227;) so that “there would be no use for either labor or capital, and no possible way in which either could compel any share of the wealth produced.”

But let us ask Mr. George, if this perfected machinery, which thus supplants all labor, and, conjointly with land, produces all wealth—if this very machinery is not itself “capital”—wealth “used for the procurement of more wealth”—(p. 71,) and that “instead of their being ‘no use’ ” for it, there is the highest-possible necessity for its use to the landowner and all the rest, since it is the sole productive factor left to natural opportunities? Mr. George’s reiterated definitions have wholly cut him off from denying to .this machinery the highest and perfect attribute of capital. And since he has so thoroughly identified labor and capital he must concede that in this imaginarily attained perfection of invention, (capital,) labor itself has achieved its grandest triumph, wrought its own emancipation, when there will be no more “wearying strain of the muscles”—nothing but head work, and every “idle man’s brain a devil’s workshop”; the true millennium for Mr. George, since he looks upon labor as “the primeval curse.” (P. 257.)

But now, (p. 238,) it is no longer the fact that labor and capital are the same thing. It is, henceforth, always labor and capital.

And though Mr. George never tires of talking about the rapacity of rent, of its continually “compelling labor and capital to accept a smaller return,” (p. 238,) he nowhere shows us how capital is the sufferer by it; while the wretchedness of the laborer is everywhere palpable, leaving it still apparent that rent and capital are the upper and nether millstones, between which the laborer is ground to powder. That increase of rent tends to lower wages, we did not have to wait the publication of Mr. Georges book to learn. That it would disastrously diminish the return to capital we now, for the first time, hear, and, if “interest proper” as Mr. George assumes, were the sole return to capital, would seem to be true.

But the simple fact that, while labor is constantly getting paler, more haggard and gaunt, capital waxes fatter and kicks harder, shows that Mr. George has missed the logic of the facts, and entirely failed to touch the bottom of the difficulty. And since there is no cause which tends so directly and inevitably to “lower the margin of cultivation” and raise rent, as increase of population, operating back of any agency which Mr. George recognizes, relegating the problem back to the flouted-at principle of “demand and supply,” it is plainly to be seen that the doctrine of Malthus, which Mr. George boasts of having completely overthrown, is more firmly established than ever.

Were there no people, there would be no use for land—no rent. The more people, the more demand for the fruits of the ground, and the greater the demand the higher the price, and the greater the rent which goes to the owner of the land. Ownership is the most powerful of incentives to that measure of effort which looks forward to profits. Without profits, (something more produced than the producer consumes,) there can be no wealth. Without wealth, no civilization—no truly human society—no social life—nothing but barbarism. If there be no remedy for pauperism but return to barbarism, the world will say, notwithstanding Mr. George’s quasi euloguim of it, that the cure is worse than the disease.

Great writers should have good memories. On pages 33, 34, Mr. George says:

“The term labor includes all human exertion, and hence human powers can never be properly classed as capital.”

To speak of “knowledge, skill, or industry” (labor?) as “constituting capital,” is to speak “metaphorically,” a “use of language that must be eschewed in reasoning that aims at exactness.” The increased production that comes from superiority in any of these respects is “due to the increased power of labor and not to capital.” “Weight is one thing and velocity another.” Thus sharply is the line drawn between labor and capital.

How long Mr. George was on his way, from page 34 to page 147, does not appear, but it was long enough to permit him to forget all this, and there to tell us, that capital is only a form of labor; and on page 179, to reiterate it with greater precision and force: “For labor and capital are but different forms of the same thing—human exertion”—the very thing that he has most positively assured us could not be classed as capital. Capital “is in fact but labor impressed on matter—labor stored up in matter.” Even “the use of capital in production is but a mode of labor.” “Its use is the expenditure of labor.” And again on page 183: “Capital is but a form of labor, and its distinction from labor is in reality but a subdivision, just as the division of labor into skilled and unskilled would be.”

Upon which of these two stools does Mr. George “propose” to sit hereafter, while contemplating the blunders and inconsistencies of “the great thinkers”? Or will he permit his readers to conclude that between them, the “new political economy” comes to the ground?

[1] We have italicized the passages to which the reader’s attention is cordially invited.

[2] It is a little remarkable that, with Mr. George’s proclivity for resolving apparent diversity into identity, it has never occurred to him, that, crowding against subsistence, and crowding against wages, are only “different forms of one and the same thing.” The more especially as he comes so near to it, as to use the very words, “means of subsistence,” without intending, however, to include the “means” of getting subsistence. While men buy meat with wages; while wages are a factor in the social economy, scarcity of wages stands for scarcity of meat. Drop out the element of wages and you have a short cut to the meat-market, provided there be any meat-market left for the accommodation of men or women without wages! But, then there is ground, roots, and berries, oyster-rocks and sharpened sticks, primitive simplicity, caves, countless acres, nomadism, barbarism, savagedom, with the still unimpaired privilege of the “infinitely better choice” of “the lot of the savage,” with “his sense of personal freedom,” (p. 257,) all of which are the alternative of wages and Malthus.